Thursday, February 9, 2012

Keeping Records

Keeping good records of the natural dyeing experience is one of the most daunting tasks many dyers face.  Every dyer I know seems to struggle with this task.  Some dyers find that keeping a good notebook with information including plant name, where it was found, dates, how they used the material, what mordants or modifiers were used in the dyeing process, what dyeing process was used to obtain the color--solar, simmering, cold water bath, fermentation, etc., and most importantly, a sample of the dyed yarn taped or glued to the page, works for them.

Try as I did to adopt this method of keeping records, it simply didn't work for me.  I found myself so anxious to get started with the actual dyeing, that the last thing I wanted to do was write in my notebook.  And after the dyeing was done, I was so entralled with the resulting colors, that I was certain I would remember all the pertinent information to write down at a later date.  My bundle of yarn was set aside and I was off on a new dyeing adventure.  Sadly, I would come back later (often days, sometimes weeks or months) to my growing pile of tangled, glorious color and not have a clue which plant gave what or how the color came to be.  I knew I was going to have to figure out a different method of keeping records...a method that I would actually use and could stick to.

Inspired by Miriam Rice's (master mushroom dyer) color wheel, I decided to try that.  It was a beautiful way to display dye samples, and the tags on each sample, although not detailed, could contain at least some of the pertinent information.  Maybe this method would work for me.  I took an old metal clothes hangar and bent it into a circle shape and actually enjoyed tying my dyed samples onto the wheel.  It was so pretty to look at....all my samples were out in plain site, not closed up in a notebook.  I hung it on a clothes rack in my craft room and added to it as I did more dyeing.  I admired it every time I walked in the room.
Color wheel based on Miriam Rice's wheel

But there was a problem:  the wheel became full rather quickly.  Now what?  Start another wheel?  No.  The wheel took up alot of space and was awkward to take anywhere.  I would need to figure out something else.  Somewhere, I heard or read of a woman who made up sample dye cards out of plastic milk jugs.  She cut 3" x 5" sections of plastic from the flat sides of  empty milk jugs and punched holes in the cards.  Through these holes, she tied pre-mordanted samples of yarn, and using a permanent marker, labled the holes with which mordant was used on the yarn.  She made up bunches of these cards at a time and set them aside.  Then, whenever she started a new dyepot, she would throw in one of her sample cards.  Since the dyebath should never get above a simmer, the plastic cards would not melt, nor the mordant names written with permanent marker disappear.  After pulling the card out of the dyepot, rinsing, and letting it dry, she would write the name of the plant material and any other information she wanted on the plastic card, punch a hole in the top corner of the card and put it on a metal clasp ring.

The idea of having all these cards pre-made with  the different mordant samples already tied on, ready to throw in the dyepot, really appealed to me.  So, I spent a saturday pre-mordanting five 4 oz. skeins of wool yarn, one each with one of the five common metallic salt mordants used in natural dyeing...alum, chrome, copper, iron, and tin.  While the yarns simmered in the mordant pots, I cut up the plastic milk jugs I had saved, punched holes and marked them.  When the mordanted yarns were dry, I cut 40" lengths, folded them over a couple of times, and tied them through the holes on my cards.  Now I had a nice stash of cards ready for when I began to dye.

sample dye card before dyeing

sample dye card after dyeing
  This process has worked really well for me.  I like it alot.  It does take quite a bit of time to make up the sample cards, but the rewards of having the card all ready on dye day, and having the advantage of seeing all the different colors that can be achieved using different mordants (without having to sacrafice a whole skein of yarn and then not like the color), and not having alot of record keeping to do after the dyeing is done, has been well worth the effort for me.  Here is what my collection of sample cards looks like today:

This packet of cards is fun and easy to flip through to see some of the possible colors a plant will yield.  And, the packet is compact enough to throw in a bag and take with me to share with others at a class or guild meeting.


  1. This is a fabulous idea- thanks so much! I'll definitely be making some...

  2. Thanks, Jules. It is always nice to know when something is helpful.

  3. That is a great idea. Unfortunately we don't get milk in plasic jugs, so I make my sample cards out of cardboard afterwards. And I love the colour wheel, and your blog, just found it :)

  4. Yes, I no longer get milk in plastic jugs either. Now I have to beg them from other family members who do!

  5. Hi Pallace, you're blog is great! So much details. Sample cards are a fantastic idea. Do you rinse the pre-mordanted yarns or not? As I am just wondering if the various mordants will not mix in the dye and modify the results a little. Unless the yarns are cured for a certain amount of time...

  6. Hi Caudex. Yes, I did rinse the pre-mordanted yarns. I mordanted a skein of yarn with each mordant, rinsed, let dry, then cut lengths to tie in the cards. That was a couple of years ago, and I still have plenty of that mordanted yarn left to make up more cards, so they are well cured! I suppose it may be possible that the combination of pre-mordanted fibers in one pot could affect the outcome, but I don't believe it would be much, if any. I have not been trying to achieve specific or repeated shades of color, so it has not been a problem for me.